What Inspired Atonal Music?

The word “atonal” is the opposite of tonal. This means atonal music does not have any central harmony, tone centre or key. Atonal music was composed from 1907 to the present day where tonality is not the primary foundation of a piece of music. Famous composers who experimented with chromatic polyphony leading toward tonality include Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alben Berg, all of whom belonged to the Second Viennese School. Jazz artists such as Anthony Braxton, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane have also written music described as being atonal. It may seem strange that anyone would like to create music without a harmonic centre. What inspired atonal music?

The History of Atonal Music

There emerged a crisis of tonality in the late 19th and 20th centuries in European classical music. Composers such as Ferruccio Busoni described it as the “exhaustion of the major-minor key system” while Schoenberg referred to it as the “inability of one tonal chord to assert dominance over all of the others”. The beginning of atonal music started with the conscious attempt to avoid traditional diatonic harmony. The first period of atonal composition began with the opera “Wozzeck” by Alban Berg in 1917 and “Pierrot Lunaire” by Schoenberg in 1912.

The second period of atonal music began after World War 1, when musicians attempted to systematically compose without tonality, most famously the 12 tones or the 12-tone technique. This period saw works like Schoenberg’s “Piano Concerto”, “Jacob’s Ladder”, and Berg’s opera “Lulu and the Lyric Suite”. Schoenberg was the major influencer of this system while his student, Anton Webern began linking dynamics and tone colour to the primary row, making the row not only of notes but of other aspects of music.

Atonal Music During and After World War 2

During World War 2, atonal music was branded as “Bolshevik” due to its organised chords without any apparent coherence. Atonal music, including other music produced by enemies of the Nazi regime, was banned, until after its collapse after the war.

The 12-tone composition was adopted by avant-garde composers in the 1950s as the foundation of new music. It led to other forms of musical innovation. Noted composers that wrote atonal music included Elliott Carter and Witold Lutoslawski. Chord progressions or successions designed to avoid a tonal centre were created and explored. Serial atonal compositions faded in the 1960s and gave way to aleatoric music, spectral music and electronic music.

Criticism of Atonal Music

While many composers embraced atonal music there were also many who criticised its uniform composition without any harmonic centre. For example, musicologist Robert Fink has stated that all music is perceived as having a tonal centre.

Music philosopher Ernest Ansermet argued that classical musical language has a precondition and that is its musical expression with its clear harmonious structures. He added that a tone system can only lead to a uniform perception of music if it is deduced from just a single interval. Richard Turuskin, an American musicologist observed that the lack of an underlying “deep structure” born out of intuition from the subconscious led to a condition where there is a disconnect between the “content of the utterance” and the “manner of its delivery”, leading to a constant irritation to listeners seeking to find meaning and pleasure in their contact with music.

Paul Hindemith, a German musician and theorist alluded that music to atonal composers is essentially a play with tones, and even though they spend a considerable amount of intelligence and craftsmanship to make it look important, their music can be of no greater value, as a sociological factor, than bowling or skating.

Schoenberg considered a pioneer atonal music composer, predicted in 1948 that the public’s resistance to “dissonance” in music would eventually diminish with repeated exposure. But he was proven wrong as most modern music today is tonal in composition.

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